River Runs Deep Chapter One MONKEY’S FIST
The fire popped behind the grate of the little stove, startling Elias awake. He reached over to scratch Charger’s neck, but of course, not finding the dog there, opened his eyes and remembered where he was. The room was similar enough to his own back in Norfolk. There was a bed topped with a faded patchwork quilt. A braided rag rug covered most of the floor. A table and chair sat tucked into another corner, Elias’s writing paper stacked on top, edges curling in the damp air. On the opposite wall hung a set of rough shelves holding a framed portrait of his family, his extra clothes and boots, as well as the razor and strap he’d brought along but would never need.
Above his bed was the window, just like his room at home. In Virginia the sun would stream in each morning with the call of shorebirds to tell Elias the day had begun.
But not here.
The sun never shone through this window.
How could it, when it was underground?
He sat up, tried to clear his throat, but fell to coughing instead. The spell was a short one, but all the same he was almost tired enough by the end that he was tempted to lie back down. Instead, he forced a swallow from the cup of water by his bed and grabbed the pencil off the table. He turned to the flat section of the wall above his bed and counted the hash marks there before adding one more. Nineteen. Had it been only nineteen days? He couldn’t be certain without the rhythms of a day to confirm it.
Still, nearly three weeks he’d been inside the cave. Three weeks of nothing but rest and waiting and reading and thinking inside this little hut, with its walls made of puzzled-together stone, its curtain hung across the doorway for privacy, the roof open to the ceiling of the cave, vaulting another twenty feet up.
One of the slaves had left Elias’s breakfast. Or maybe it was supper after all. There were no clues there, either. The doctor had put him on a strict diet straightaway.
“Eggs and tea,” Dr. Croghan had announced after Elias’s first examination, explaining that simplifying the diet would allow the body to concentrate on fighting the disease. Eggs, according to Croghan, were the perfect food, and he boasted that the horehound-dill tea was his own special concoction. The doctor seemed so pleased about it that Elias hadn’t the heart to tell him the tea tasted like sucking on a pickle boiled in honey.
It was harder to take than the eggs, but even those grew tiresome shortly. Still, he knew he should be glad. The treatments could be worse. They’d tried all kinds of remedies on his father back in Norfolk before the end. Elias had worried then that the treatments meant to cure his father’s lungs might only kill him quicker.
So if Croghan’s tea tasted foul and the eggs got old, at least he hadn’t worried about the doctor’s methods killing him. Yet.
No, the remedies he endured easily enough.
But the boredom he did not.
It was the stillness and the dark and the sameness of it all. Nothing to do but rest, no one to talk to but the slaves who tended him or the doctor who saw him every day. The doctor had encouraged him to visit with his nearest neighbors. The section of the cave where his hut sat was a good-size chamber, though not so big as some of the rooms he’d passed through on the way down. Two huts sat on the other side of a little courtyard, some forty yards away from his. Between them sat a sort of nurses’ station—a large fire ring, kettles, boxes of supplies, and provisions arrayed around whatever slave was on duty at the moment.
At first Elias had been keen to know the pretty lady with the golden hair in one of the far huts. Nedra. But not anymore. He visited with her once in a while, but the way he might have with a shut-in back home, or an old relation he was obliged to call on but couldn’t wait to leave as soon as he’d arrived.
And that made him feel even worse.
The hut next to hers was more of a mystery. Elias spent a fair amount of time watching Pennyrile’s cabin. He’d glimpsed the man only rarely and never saw him clearly or for long, as Pennyrile shut the curtain quick if Elias looked his way. He kept silent in there, not speaking even to Dr. Croghan or the slaves. But there were noises from inside, noises that spooked Elias. Cooing and warbling and flapping. The sounds of pigeons.
Pigeons. Down in a cave of all places.
Elias’s curiosity still hadn’t gotten ahold of him enough to find out why Pennyrile kept birds, or why Pennyrile was so secretive.
He’d written two letters home, filled with the kinds of things he felt he ought to say—that he was obeying the doctor, that the cave was interesting, that he missed his mother, grandmother, and sister. He’d received three letters from Virginia that he’d read until the pages had worn thin.
But there had been no new letter for a week, and the silence made it easy to slip into a sort of gloom, the kind where he almost let himself believe Mama and Granny and Tillie had given up on him, had sent him away to get rid of him. That that was the reason he didn’t hear from them more.
He’d felt it at home some, when his friends stopped coming. Before sending him to Kentucky, his mother laid him up on the sleeping porch where Gideon and Harold would stop by once in a while, lingering on the steps, biding a few minutes with him. But eventually they took to only waving as they passed the hedgerow, and not long after, they quit passing by the house at all.
Elias tried not to hate them for forgetting him before he’d even died. But it was hard.
Tying knots helped some; reading helped less. The book of poetry he’d borrowed from Nedra was a disappointment. The knights were barely in any of the poems, and there were no battles or magic, at least not in any he’d discovered yet. But he’d gone and swapped with her for his copy of The Death of Arthur, so it was all he had for now.
He reread a longish poem that Nedra had dog-eared. At least this one had Lancelot. None of the rest made much sense to him, though he liked the way the words felt when he whispered them to himself as he read, keeping time like bells on a horse’s harness.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
“I am half-sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.
That part—the bit about being sick of shadows—he understood fine. He was sick of weak candlelight, too. Not to mention eggs without bacon or a hunk of bread.
No halves about it.
Tossing the book aside, he took the coiled rope off the bedpost and set to work on a monkey’s fist, twisting the ropes and tucking the end through, over and over until he had a tight ball of a knot stopping up the end of the rope. Perfect for throwing. It was such a good knot, he hated to see it go to waste. Nedra across the way knit, and when she finished, she had something to show for it. But Elias could only undo his work and start anew. It was nearly enough to drive him to take up knitting. Nearly.
“What’s that ’posed to be for?” a voice whispered.
“Who’s there?” Elias jerked his head up and looked to the window. Empty. “I said, ‘Who’s there?’?” Elias repeated. He had heard a voice, hadn’t he? Or had his fever climbed again? Sometimes when it rose, he worried that he saw things . . . heard things.
“I ain’t nobody,” the whisper came again, even softer. “Jus’ wondered about that tying you do.”
Nobody? Elias thought. Had to be somebody. But it didn’t sound like anybody he could name. Living in the dark taught a body to listen. He could tell the doctor coming just by his walk, and a voice was even easier to recognize. But he couldn’t place it on account of the whispering. He reached for the lamp, began to pull it closer—“Far ’nough,” the voice whispered.
Who on earth was it? he wondered. Not the doctor, of course. Not one of the other patients who wouldn’t have reason or the energy to spy on Elias anyhow. That left only the slaves.
But this voice wasn’t Stephen’s. Stephen Bishop wouldn’t have lurked at a window for anything in the world. The man was squat and strong, with glossy black hair that curled out from underneath the edges of his slouch cap. When he’d brought Elias down from the entrance the first day, he’d proudly pointed out all the wonders of the cave, his voice carrying as smoothly as that of an actor aiming to be heard up in the cheap seats. He took too much care with his appearance to hide in the dark and liked the sound of his own voice too much to whisper. He’d been bossy to boot, telling Elias not to go wandering, no matter what.
And it wasn’t Nick’s voice either. Nick, who often brought his meals and more fuel for the stove, wore an old felt parson’s hat, shirt buttoned all the way up to his neck. His voice, when he cared to use it, rolled deep and rich, punctuated by pauses so he could spit short streams of tobacco off into the shadows. He was kind to Elias in both his few words and his manner, and was far too forthright to sneak around.
And though the voice was high and quiet, it wasn’t Lillian or Hannah or any of the other young women who served as nurses in the ward.
No, the voice was young, and it was certainly one Elias had not heard before.
But the eyes—he’d seen those eyes before.
He’d noticed them his second day, staring in as he read, but they disappeared before he could even call out. And he’d seen them twice since, both times appearing in his darkened window, far enough out of the circle of light thrown by his lamp. And there were countless times Elias had felt someone watching, but when he checked, saw nothing in the window.
They were back now, looming a few inches above the sill.
“Who are you?” Elias asked, clenching the knot in his fist.
The eyes blinked, hovered, like they had no face to belong to. “What you do all that tying on those ropes for?”
Elias swallowed once. “This one’s for throwing.”
The eyes blinked again as the voice made a sort of hmph sound.
“Who are you?” Elias asked again.
Elias nearly asked the voice if it were really there at all, or if he were only imagining it, his bored brain inventing a strange visitor. Maybe his fever had spiked after all. But if the presence at the window were the product of his imagination, he couldn’t very well expect it to confess. Elias chose his next words with care. “Are you a—” He cut himself off, tried again. “Nick said this place has haints.”
The voice laughed quietly. “You askin’ if I’m a ghost?”
“Are you?” Elias persisted. He’d pushed himself all the way up against the head of the bed, his spine pressing hard into the frame.
“Maybe I am,” the voice said. “What about you?”
“Well, naw, I ain’t a ghost.”
“You sure?” the voice asked. “You just like the rest of ’em. All y’all do is sit around and do nothing all day. Cain’t leave. And you’re so peaked, you might as well be one.”
“I’m sick,” Elias protested. “I ain’t dead. Not yet, anyhow.”
At that moment Nedra set to coughing, a fit that came on as sudden as a squall. Elias heard Lillian rush across from where she sat by the fire. And when he looked back at the window, the eyes had vanished. In a flash of courage, Elias leaped to his knees and poked his head out the window.
No one there.
But he listened closely, and in the ebb between Nedra’s racket, he heard feet running—bare, he reckoned by the soft slapping sounds—moving off down the slope, heading away from the huts.
He knew precious little about ghosts or haints, but he figured they floated more than walked. And in the light cast by the fire on the far wall, he could make out a shadow of movement, the faintest outline of a pair of arms extending for balance.
Ghosts wouldn’t make shadows, would they?